LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Ever since the Vegas Golden Knights got to southern Nevada, the region has fallen in love with hockey, both watching it and playing it.
On a typical weekday evening, City National Arena in Summerlin is full of families. Kids of all ages take turns participating in hockey practice while parents watch, scattered throughout the stands. Most hockey parents will tell you their kids can't get enough time on the ice.
"They love hockey. It's all they want to do," said Matthew, a Las Vegas father referencing his two sons. "They play hockey four or five hours a day. As soon as they get home from school, homework, then they're outside roller blading and playing hockey all day until they have practice," he said.
Ask any young player, and they'll explain why they love to play.
"When you get on that ice, you just have that feeling that you cannot stop skating," said Brenden, one of Matthew's young sons.
"The team loves the fans as much as the fans love the team," said Darren Eliot, VP of Hockey Programming and Facility Operations for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Most people probably recognize Eliot for his analysis of the team on TV. But during the day, he's helping to grow the sport of hockey in southern Nevada.
"Seeing the smiles, seeing the kids make those little incremental steps. They don't even know. It's like, 'All of a sudden, I can turn to my right. Hey, I just learned how to cross over.' To see those steps taken is what it's all about for me," said Eliot.
Eliot has been around hockey his whole life and says he's never seen the sport explode in popularity like it has here over the past five years. Interest in the sport is at an all time high in the Las Vegas Valley, but it wasn't always this way.
"Before the Golden Knights got here, there were only 92 registered eight-and-under hockey players in Nevada. Last year, there were 810," said Eliot.
That's a 780% percent increase in Nevada youth hockey participation since the Golden Knights got to Las Vegas. And what's perhaps even more improbable is interest didn't dip during the pandemic.
"Across the country, because of rinks being shut down and those kinds of things, USA Hockey saw a dip of 33% in eight-and-under hockey. We grew by 37%," said Eliot.
Increasing demand for ice is one of the reasons why the Golden Knights opened Lifeguard Arena in Henderson last November. From the rinks to the streets of southern Nevada, Eliot says the growth of the game all comes back to one thing...the town's first pro team.
"The love affair between the fans and the team and the team and the fans, I've never seen anything like it. We have full stands watching practice...unprecedented, again. And success breeds interest breeds this kind of, 'Hey, everybody wants to be a hockey player because of the Golden Knights,'" said Eliot.
"You can see it in youth hockey now. There's lots of kids playing the game, there's lots of players loving the game. So, I think the Knights have played a huge role in that," said Mark Stone, Captain of the Vegas Golden Knights.
Eliot said, even with all this interest Nevada still has a long way to go before it can compete with the three 'M''s of USA Hockey: Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Michigan. But he adds that just means there's still a lot of room for growth.